Generally speaking, supermaxes represent the turn from progressive, rehabilitation-oriented movements of the early 20th century to the punitive approach that the United States—and, quite often following America’s lead, many countries—have taken since the 1970s. Yet according to a 2006 Urban Institute report, there is little evidence that supermaxes are successful at reducing crime, prison violence, or recidivism rates. The report called for more research about the fiscal and human costs of what has become a brutal regime around the world.
It’s a regime that the United States has been exporting in various incarnations since its birth. During the 18th century, European thinkers began circulating ideas about criminals paying dues in time and isolation, as opposed to the physical punishment that had been the norm until then; they envisioned a punishment that was neater, more contained, and more rational—more in line with the so-called Age of Reason than beheadings or banishment. The U.S.—freshly independent and eager to prove itself more progressive than its former colonizer—actualized these ideas, erecting two landmark prisons in the mid-19th century: Philadelphia’s Eastern, grounded in solitary confinement, and New York’s Auburn, whose contrasting model involved slave-like hard labor.
America’s prison prototypes fast went international, as 19th-century European scholars and leaders made prison tours a vital stop on visits across the pond. Fredrick William IV of Prussia came, followed by rulers of Saxony, Russia, and the Netherlands, and commissioners from France, Austria, Holland, Denmark, and Sweden. Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens were the most vocal tourists at U.S. prisons, broadcasting the horror of what they saw there. John Daughtry, Jamaica’s general inspector of prisons between 1841 and 1861, modeled Tower Street after Eastern: “No sounds but of the hammer, the axe or the saw,” he wrote in an 1844 report.
In this way, prisons weaved their way into the fabric of other cultures throughout Europe and, via its colonies, around the world, to countries like Spain, Colombia, China, Japan, and India. Early-20th-century prison-building across the African continent represented colonial efforts to reinforce hierarchies in the most literal of ways. The very look of the prisons was telling: Here were orderly, Western-looking edifices seeking to impose discipline on those “unruly” natives.
Nowadays, prison privatization is another U.S. “innovation” that has spread across the world, particularly to Australia, which holds the world’s largest proportion of prisoners in private facilities—about 19 percent of its 33,000 or so prisoners—and boasts a wholly private immigrant-detention system. From Thailand—where I spent time in women’s prisons overseen by an NGO headed by the princess of Thailand herself—to Brazil and even progressive Norway, where I met a young incarcerated man serving 16 years for heroin use, experts recited the same chorus: U.S.-style draconian drug policies, mandatory penalties, and “one size fits all” punishments are packing prisons in their countries, too. The end result is that between 2008 and 2011, the prison population grew in 78 percent of the countries included in the World Prison Population List compiled by the International Centre for Prison Studies. As of 2013, some 10.2 million people worldwide were behind bars, many convicted of nothing, waiting years to be tried and lacking access to legal assistance.